For someone with purported disdain for local programming I have found myself praising a number of BBC Northern Ireland’s programmes lately. I retain the right to spittle flecked apoplexy when ‘Have I Got News for You’ is replaced by ‘Good Dog Bad Dog’ or when a particularly good ‘Question Time’ panel is eschewed in favour of Daithi McKay, Dawn Purvis, Sean Neeson and Edwin Poots or an equally stellar selection of political thinkers on ‘Let’s Talk’. However I am quite prepared to fight the corner for local output when it is as good as Monday night’s documentary ‘The Great Girona Gold Hunt’.
As a child I visited the Girona treasures in the Ulster Museum. I was aware that the Spanish Armada ship had been wrecked somewhere close to Dunluce Castle in the autumn of 1588, but I had a number of misconceptions about the incident and I did not entirely understand the significance of this particular wreck until I watched the programme. It had been my understanding in fact that it was Dunluce that the Girona was attempting to reach on the fateful night when 1,300 on board lost their lives. I was also under the misapprehension that the ship was merely another Armada vessel of the many lost on the Irish coast that year. I did not appreciate that it represented a breakthrough in naval technology, or that the ship’s passengers were the surviving elite knights of Spain’s nobility.
The documentary fascinatingly outlined the ship’s attempted flight to Scotland (not to refuge with the Catholic McDonnell family of Dunluce Castle as I had believed), its wreck at Port na Spaniagh (pictured) near the Giant’s Causeway and the subsequent discovery of the same wreck by Belgian diver Robert Stenoit. It made sense of a great deal of folklore from the North Coast and the Glens of Antrim. The McDonnells had reputedly taken in 5 surviving Spaniards who had escaped the wreck, but their prime contribution was to loot enough gold to build the Elizabethan manor house at the castle, and obfuscate the actual location of the ship’s demise.
The Belgian team were to extrapolate clues and eventually found the treasure, but the unsung hero of the episode was Laurence Flannigan who negotiated for their finds to remain in Northern Ireland. His legacy is that the most important collection of Armada treasure is situated in Belfast, a fact which surely would be more worthwhile as a sales pitch to tourists, rather than encouraging them to take bus-trips around our most deprived areas gawking at murals.
The documentary is available on I Player.